Posted: Apr 22, 2004 12:00 AM

 It should come as no surprise that San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris isn't seeking the death penalty against a man charged with murdering San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza on April 10. After all, Harris was elected after issuing an ironclad campaign promise not to seek the death penalty under any circumstances.

 You could almost admire her for keeping her promise -- except that it was a promise a district attorney should never have made. As Frank Jordan, former San Francisco police chief and mayor, noted, a D.A. needs a "safety valve" for extraordinary cases.

 The pledge scratches any chance for a plea bargain for life without parole -- the penalty Harris is seeking for defendant David Hill if he is found guilty for shooting and killing Espinoza as charged.

 Worst of all, as Police Chief Heather Fong suggested when she sent a letter signed by eight deputy police chiefs and commanders that urged Harris to seek the death penalty, Harris' decision may poison the new D.A.'s relations with the SFPD.

 City cops were thrilled when Harris ousted her predecessor, Terence "Fluffy" Hallinan, whom they perceived to be more interested in prosecuting cops than thugs. Their spirits were dampened, alas, when Harris announced she would not prosecute 124 anti-war protesters who illegally blocked streets -- impeding the rights of others to move about freely -- including one defendant charged with assaulting a police officer working a thankless job.

 It seemed like a highly political -- read: spineless -- decision. In the process, Harris dissed San Francisco police in arguing that the local constabulary had failed to meet the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt (even though many protesters were caught live on videotape).

 For her part, Harris could (and did) argue that she couldn't possibly win a capital sentence with a San Francisco jury. For backup, the D.A.'s office referred me to Jim Anderson with the Alameda County district attorney's office. Anderson cited Alameda County cop-killer cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty, only to watch East Bay jurors (who are generally more conservative than San Francisco jurors) choose sentences of life without parole, life or, in one case, a lesser sentence for second-degree murder.

 Privately, some law-and-order types admit that a San Francisco jury might acquit a defendant just to spare the guilty from the same sentence he so mercilessly imposed on Isaac Espinoza, 29, a father, husband and true believer of fighting crime.

 On the other hand, Harris doesn't seem to understand that beat cops want to hear outrage from her. At times, she sounds as if she is angrier at her critics than at the shooter.

 Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein won a standing ovation at Espinoza's funeral when she proclaimed that California voters reinstated the death penalty for cases such as this. Seeking life without parole instead of an execution doesn't cut it, or as Chief Fong wrote: "Our sense of justice cries out for this."

 It's true, Bay Area juries don't seem to share the fury expressed by Feinstein and Fong. Like Harris, many San Franciscans are more interested in maintaining their purity by rejecting capital punishment than making S.F. cops feel that the public appreciates the risks they assume on the job.

 Why is the death penalty appropriate when a police officer is killed? As Alameda prosecutor Anderson argued, the killing of a cop warrants extra outrage because "That's a class of people that makes society function." Hurt them, and you also hurt the city.

 Of course, Anderson added, in San Francisco, cops are not "regarded as first-class citizens."

 If residents choose to undervalue what SFPD officers do, it would be nice if the officers at least felt they had the unequivocal backing of city government.

 Harris says she won't back down. She sees cops who appreciate the work she has done to increase prosecutions. Unlike her predecessor, she notes, she takes drug offenses seriously -- which should count for something. "At some point, everyone is just going to have to agree to disagree and move forward because we've got a lot of work to do," said Harris.

 Former Mayor Jordan had another take: "It shows courage to change your mind when you have extenuating circumstances like this. Do the right thing."